Wednesday, December 31, 2014


A scene from Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera

Reviewed by James Karas

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg has a number of unique features: it is Richard Wagner’s only comic opera; it holds the Guinness World record as the longest opera; it is an opera that manages to be of epic proportions and comic at the same time.

The Metropolitan Opera has revived Otto Schenk’s 1993 production for the last time and sent it around the world in HD. Not everyone in the theatre had the stamina to stay for the full six hours but those who did were treated to a grand production, vocally, musically and theatrically.

German baritone Michael Volle dominated the performance in the role of Hans Sacks, the humane shoemaker and mastersinger in 16th century Nürnberg. Volle’s sonorous voice is perfect for evoking Sack’s humanity, humour and decency. He maintains his dignity and generosity including the self-awareness that he is too old for Eva, the heroine of the opera. A performance that is as attractive and enjoyable as the character that Volle is playing.

South African tenor Johan Botha plays Walther von Stolzing, the knight who comes to     Nürnberg and falls in love with Eva, the goldsmith’s daughter. Knights used to get the girl by defeating the competition in battle; in Nürnberg he has to best everyone in singing. If he does, he will marry Eva. Our knight has the voice but not the knowledge and he has a few hours to master rules and compose a Prize Song. Botha has a marvelous voice displaying both romantic fervour and power. But there is a problem that may be made worse by the close-ups of watching the opera in the movie theatre.

Stolzing is the dashing knight that Eva falls in love with at first sight. We are quite used to singers who are a poor match for the way we imagine a character and critics should avoid commenting on a singer’s appearance. But in the case of Botha suspension of disbelief becomes almost impossible. He is a big man, who moves awkwardly and the idea of him as a figure of romance is hard to fathom.

German soprano Annette Dasch made a wholesome and pretty Eva with a sweet voice and even sweeter manner. The daughter of the wealthy goldsmith Pogner (done well by Hans-Peter König), she is a worthy objective for a knight or any man. Dasch knows when to look alluring and sing beautifully to give us an exemplary Eva.

Tenor Paul Appleby comes in for special praise. He is a young artist who performed the role of the apprentice David with delightful verve, energy, agility and just plain joy.  His supple voice stood him in good stead for a very good performance.

German baritone Johannes Martin Kränzle got the juicy role of the foolish and nasty Beckmesser. He wants to beat all the mastersingers and get Eva but he makes a laughingstock of himself, gets his comeuppance and does not get the girl. Kränzle gives a superb performance.

Otto Schenk’s production can be classified as traditional with the additional phrase of “they don’t make them like they used to” attached to it. The production will be retired at the end of the year and we will have to wait for the next view of the opera.

Schenk is Franco Zeffirelli with restraint and common sense. The set is by Günther Schneider-Siemssen. The opening scene in the nave of the church is grand without being ostentatious. The street scene and the interior of Sacks’s workshop are realistic and attractive, displaying a well-ordered and well-off city. The final scene is supposed to be in a meadow on the banks of a river but looks more like a wide street with rising steps.

Die Meistersinger has a demanding score and surely few conductors and orchestras can equal James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra in performing it. The length of the opera is bound to get to you – concentrate on the orchestra when it does!

The Live in HD Director was Matthew Diamond who decided on exactly what we would see on the screen with sense, intelligence and taste. That is no small achievement when he is compared to some of his colleagues who think opera on the screen is a video game

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg by Richard Wagner was shown Live in HD from the Metropolitan Opera on December 13, 2014 at the Cineplex Odeon Eglinton Town Centre Cinema, 22 Lebovic Avenue, Toronto, Ontario and other theatres. Encores will be shown on February 7 and 23, 2015. For more information call (416)-752-4494 or visit

Wednesday, December 10, 2014


Ilias Logothetis and Mirto Alikaki

By James Karas 

Near the end of Maria Douza’s first feature film A Place Called Home, Kyriakos walks up the stairs of his mansion for the last time. When he reaches the top we see a dimly visible poster of Constantine Cavafy, the quintessential poet of the Greek diaspora and the writer of Ithaca, the archetypal poem of the return of the native.

Douza’s marvelous film is very much about the uprooted Greek who finds himself in a foreign land, be it willingly or forcefully, and seeks his Ithaca.

Kyriakos (played superbly by Ilias Logothetis) owns a mansion and has been the mayor of his city for some twenty years. As a child he ended up in Serbia at the end of the Greek Civil War and spent his formative years there until he was repatriated in 1963.  

His daughter Eleni (Mirto Alikaki) studied in England and when the film begins she is appointed professor of cardiology at a university in London. Her elderly father asks her to go and see him and she arrives just before Easter with her young daughter Anna. Significantly, she has married an English banker who has been sent to Shanghai by his employer, a failed bank.

Eleni finds a Serbian woman named Nina (Mirjiana Karanovic) living in Kyriakos’s house and taking care of him. Nina’s sad eyes and expressive face encapsulate the fate of millions of people who were displaced by the political convulsions of the twentieth century. There is a moving story about Nina and her daughter and a satisfying conclusion. I am deliberately not giving many details about the plot. Douza has written a fine story that keeps our attention to the very end and I do not want to spoil it for people who have not seen the movie. 

The main plotline concerns Eleni. She has returned to her roots but she no longer belongs there. Her return becomes a journey to the past: her memory of her mother, her relations with her father, her association with her friend Markos (Nikos Orfanos) and all the spirits that she left behind when she went abroad.

The Greek title of the film is The Tree and the Swing, an apt image of the roots that bind us to the homeland and pleasant childhood memories of swinging on the swing that is tied to the tree. Not all the memories are pleasant and the tree will be felled by a chain saw, the swing will fall to the ground, the ties bind some people to Ithaca will be torn. As you will recall, Cavafy warned us that Ithaca may have nothing more to give us.   

Alikaki gives a splendid performance as the woman torn between obligations to husband, daughter, career, father and homeland. She returns to Greece with mixed emotions and matters become dramatically worse as she discovers what happened in the past and what her father wants her to do now.
Kyriakos is a successful politician at the end of his career. He wants to leave a legacy to his community and through him we get a glance at Greek politics. Logothetis broodingly characterizes him as patriarchal, somewhat domineering but in the end as a man who lived through Greece’s worst period and has retained his decency and even his patriotism.

Most of the film is shot in the rather dark interior of Kyriakos’s mansion but there are some marvelous exterior scenes by the sea. Douza dwells lovingly on the faces of her characters and lets their expressions tell their story. The mansion is a dwelling and a symbol but we never get a sustained view of the exterior of the house. I wish Douza had given us a more compelling image of the house the way she did of the faces of the characters.

A Place Called Home is a poignant, rather dour film that is meticulously plotted and judiciously directed. One of the last tableaux, carefully chosen no doubt, is of an Easter dinner, with all the symbols of reconciliation, redemption and resurrection. But Douza does not stoop to a soppy conclusion. Eleni does not stay in Ithaca; the Greek of the diaspora remains far away from the tree and the swing because they are no longer there. Unlike Kyriakos’s, Eleni’s journey has just begun and she will perhaps drop anchor in her homeland again when she is old, full of experiences and much wiser.

A Place Called Home was shown at the 10th European Union Film Festival held in Toronto between November 15 and 30, 2014.  

Wednesday, December 3, 2014


Danielle Wade and Jeff Lillico. Photo Racheal McCaig Photography 

Reviewed by James Karas

Ross Petty’s Cinderella: The Gags to Riches Family Musical is a riot. It will play at the Elgin Theatre until January 4, 2015 and provides a theatrical experience where stage and audience are charged with energy and joy. It is something that performers dream of creating and audiences dream of seeing.

Petty’s forte is fracturing fairy tales, as he puts it, and this Cinderella is no different. Our heroine runs an organic vegetable booth at a Farmers Market in Toronto and she is just two weeks short of the age of majority. In those two weeks her evil stepmother wants to take way her business and turn it into a store selling Hypno Chips containing benzene!

Cinderella wants to participate in a reality show on CBC called EligiBall and meet Max Charming but her stepmother aptly named Revolta Bulldoza does all she can to prevent it. Her nasty Hypno Chips are effective but not as effective as the magic wand of Plumbum, the Fairy Godmother.

That is a bare outline of the fracturing of the fairy tale and Cinderella does go to a ball in a real horse-drawn carriage, meets Max, the evil stepsisters are put in their place, chips are vilified, healthy food is glorified and no doubt we all live happily ever after.

The fun is in between and the most important part of the glorious entertainment is the rambunctious audience, in this case made up of a lot of youngsters ranging from a few months to teens. When Ross Petty appears as Bulldoza, he goads the audience and the young people screech with laughter and express their disapproval with enthusiastic boos. These are no ordinary boos but heartfelt expressions of moral outrage that is simply hilarious. When the wholesome and pretty Cinderella (played beautifully by Danielle Wade) appears there is nothing but love emanating from the auditorium.

That is not all. When they sing on stage, the young sing along. I was accompanied by a bright-eyed and energetic six-year old who knew all the lyrics and expressed her approval and condemnation with the promptness and zeal of a most discerning and sensitive adult.

Cleopatra Williams,  Bryn McAuley and Ross Petty. Photo Racheal McCaig Photography 

There are contemporary references that most youngsters could not relate to. They did not concern them. Olivia Chow, Hazel McCallion, the Fords. Kathleen Wynne, John Tory and a host of others made their way into the show.        

Petty dominates the show with non-stop comic business and singing. The humour goes from high to low and the audience just loves to “hate” his Revolta Bulldoza.

Dan Chameroy is riotous as the Fairy Godmother falling down the stairs, bumping into things and having a magic wand that is out of juice. Jeff Lillico is a wholesome Max Charming, a pop star who wants to be loved for himself.

Petty has found a nifty if not terribly original way of financing the show – advertising. There are several commercials incorporated in the show that advertise the sponsors in the context of the fairy tale. The Toronto Star, CIBC, Hilton Hotel, PC Mobile are interspersed using characters from the show with humour and minimal interference.

The whole enterprise from gags , to dancing, to pratfalls, (not to mention horses on stage) is expertly directed by Tracey Flye.

I make no secret of the fact that I enjoyed the show immensely. On the stage, there is a riotous musical with great humour, marvelous dancing, kaleidoscopally colourful sets and sheer joy in telling a morality tale. In the audience, there was infectious enthusiasm, fists thrown up in the air in disproval and shrieks of appreciation. It was a symbiosis that may be taken as both a fine definition of theatre and a night at the theatre.         

CINDERELLA, The Gags to Riches Family Musical opened on November 27 and will play until January 4, 2014 at the Elgin Theatre, 189 Yonge St. Toronto, Ontario.